Next (safe) step for your idea on a napkin

With the global economy in the doldrums, it is natural that many of us out there are coming up with inventions and business ideas as a means of complementing our day jobs and supporting our families.

At least once a week, weather it is in the board room or over a drink at happy hour, I am asked to give my thoughts on somebody’s new invention.  Sometimes these ideas are well thought out, have a solid business plan and I end up investing my own time, resources and capital to get behind the project.  But more often than not, the idea is at the “back of the napkin” stage and there is not enough information to tell if it is a winner or loser.

Unfortunately, many of these napkin-stage inventors are so excited about the idea that they jump in bed with the first partner they can find without thinking about the long term consequences of their actions.

Here is a real example.

Today I was contacted by an inventor who had a pretty good idea for a keyboard that integrates larger keys and LED lighting to assist the visually impaired.  He contacted me in hopes I would help him find a Chinese factory to engineer, produce and distribute the item globally.  Sounds easy, but with only an idea on a napkin and no blue prints or intellectual property (IP) protection in place, he was about to go swimming with sharks and I am almost certain China would have eaten him up alive.

Here is my response to this inventor.

The idea sounds interesting, I’m honored you have brought it to my attention. To help you out, I have a couple of questions/ideas/suggestions for you.

    Before you tell too many people about the idea, you need to do two things

    a) Confirm that the concept has not been claimed by another inventor

    b) If the answer to A is “no”, then make sure your Intellectual Property (IP) is protected ASAP.  In your home market AND China.

    With the IP I place, then you can safely start talking to partners and I think your first stop should be with an engineering firm to nail down your designs. I highly suggest you don’t ask a potential supplier in China to do your engineering because if your partnership with them doesn’t work out, they may still try to move forward on the project without you, regardless of who owns the IP because they know a startup like yourself can’t easily monitor or enforce your IP in China.

    Having said that, if you registered your IP before you got knocked-off, then if you found yourself in a position where you needed to enforce your IP in China or USA, you would at least be on a level playing field.

    In summary, it sounds like a good idea, but until you have a design and IP in place, it would be hard for a company like mine to organize the supply chain and/or introduce investment partners.

    If you feel your “idea on a napkin” has real potential, then do yourself a favor and register the IP and nail down the designs before you start poking around China for suppliers and investors.  Unless you don’t mind a Chinese company taking your idea to market first.

    Here are some more videos and blog posts on the subjects above:

    Where can I find a partner to help distribute a product under my license for the IP?

    Video 5: Protecting Your Intellectual Property

    You must freeze the design

    Engineering in China

    About the author:

    Mike Bellamy is an Advisory Board Member & Featured Blogger at the not-for-profit China Sourcing Information Center ( He is also the author of, “The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing” ( and founder of PassageMaker Sourcing Solutions ( )

    1 Comment

    1. Vanessa Mumford on December 20, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Thanks for sharing this information. :)

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